Wednesday, September 30, 2009

My Theory of Obama

I have a theory that answers many, many of the questions that we keep asking about this mysterious man.

"Why did he go to France and 'apologize for America' as showing 'arrogance' and being 'dismissive, even derisive'?" "Why does he keep doing 'unpresidential' things, like repeatedly appearing on Letterman and Conan O'Brien, or attacking Rush Limbaugh by name, or chanting fired up! ready to go! fired up! ready to go! to audiences of supporters?" "Why is his smile so amazingly consistent?" "Why did he think that the best thing he can do for his health plan is not to negotiate with different factions but to give more speeches, even though he has already given almost 200 speeches on the same subject?" "Why do people keep saying he is 'brilliant' while he keeps making boneheaded mistakes?"

I have the answers.

In his whole life, this man has only ever demonstrated that he possesses one skill set to a superlative degree: the skills used in campaigning for office. It is the one and only thing he is brilliant at.

It is true that he taught law for years in Chicago, but there is no known evidence of his being especially good at it. He apparently never published anything in all those years, not even a book review. He held positions in two different legislatures, but he was too busy campaigning for his next job to write important legislation.

It's not that campaigning is the only thing he knows how to do, but it is the only thing in the world he feels really right, really comfortable about doing.

So he is stuck in campaign mode. It's all he ever does. That's the reason for all the speechifying. Giving speeches is what campaigners do. And when he went to France, he wasn't apologizing. He was campaigning. In fact, he was doing his favorite kind of campaigning: running against Bush. Why not? It worked against McCain, didn't it? And the French hate Bush even more than Americans do. The arrogant-dismissive-derisive comment wasn't about America, and is certainly wasn't an apology: it was simply another attack on Bush.

This explains the many unpresidential things he does. They are untypical of a president, but they are all very typical of the glad-handing, baby-smooching, fake-idealism-spouting, campaigning pol. As is the perfect, though fake, smile in the above 130 pictures (yes, they are completely different pictures, taken from the State Department's web site).

What we are finding now, to the surprise and amazement of some, is that actually running a giant state requires a rather different skill set from the activity of getting the voters to let you run it. That is something that this man does not yet know how to do.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Police Are There to Protect Us, Not You

I don't have anything original to say, but as this is a practical matter I thought I should do a little bit to get this information out.

By putting together facts from two different news reports, the redoubtable Will Grigg has pointed out something about the revoltingly brutal murder of Derrion Albert that has not otherwise been noticed:
As the Chicago Tribune noted, “The first officers who arrived on the scene waited until backup arrived before they broke up the fight, witnesses said.”

That’s right: Armed “officers” — plural — sat by and refused to intervene while an innocent 16-year-old was beaten to death in front of them.

A report from a local CBS affiliate adds this critical detail: “When police arrived, three of [the Agape Community Center's] staff went out to rescue a boy who was getting beaten by several others. The teen was later identified as Albert. Police waited with the staff members until the ambulance arrived to transport Albert, [Center Director Milton] Massie said.”

As Grigg points out, this means that "unarmed civilians intervened at personal risk in a genuinely heroic, albeit doomed, effort to save the honor roll student" while the officers waited for backup.

The practical point here is: there is no scandal here. These officers were not doing anything legally wrong. The police have no legal duty to protect individual human beings. Their duty is, after you have been killed or injured, to provide a collective, public good: to catch the bad guy so the other bad guys will be more reluctant to attack other people.

The moral is: if you have reason to believe you are in danger of attack, do not under any circumstances rely on the police to protect you. You must take all reasonable steps to protect yourself. You are on your own.

The Bush-Did-It-Too Move

In this video public school children in New Jersey were recorded singing a song that a teacher claims they wrote themselves.

Among many memorable touches, it includes a couple of lines that took me back to Sunday school when at the age of six I was required to sing these lines:
Red and yellow, black and white,
All are precious in his sight,
Jesus loves the little children of the world.*
But that was in a church, not in a public school, and we were singing the praises of the Son of God and not a sitting president.

What interests me right now is not these lines, nor the suprising fact that some people are defending what the teachers in this video are doing. It is the logic of some of their arguments.

This article takes Michelle Malkin to task for objecting to the video. Half way down the page (right after the de rigueur charge of racism) it says:
[W]hy in God's name would Malkin link to every conservative flack on the block about this matter, and uh, second, forget that in 2006 school kids were instructed to make up a song praising FEMA and its work in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and then sing it directly to Laura Bush!
I hereby formulate a corollay to Godwin's Law It goes like this: "As an argument with an Obama supporter progresses, the probability of a comparison involving Bush and the Bush administration approaches 1."

You see instances all around you. But what on Earth are they supposed to mean? The idea can't be "it must be okay because Bush did it too," because the people who use this trope hate Bush and all his works. In fact, the link in the above quote takes you to a left-wing blog that attacks the pathetic FEMA song. Some commenters even say that this reminds them of Chinese kids singing songs of praise for Chairman Mao -- just the sort of comment that Republicans are now making about the Obama song.

So ... couldn't the couldn't the comments on that blog be given as reasons to be against the Obama song?

The whole Bush-did-it-too move suffers from the same screamingly obvious logical flaw: if Bush did the same thing as Obama, that should mean that what Obama did is a thing of evil and stinks in the Nostrils of the Lord. And yet people who make this move seem to think they've scored some sort of devastating defense of Obama's actions and policies. You can find another example of exactly the same version of the move here.

What they Hell is going on here?

Actually, that's not a rhetorical question. I think I've figured out the logic of the Bush-did-it-too move, but I'll have to post it later.
* The relevant words in the Obama song are:
He said red, yellow, black or white
All are equal in his sight
Mmm, mmm, mm!
Barack Hussein Obama!

On the other hand, there's this (tip o' the sombrero to David Kramer):

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Glenn Beck May Be Right About Something!

Watch CBS Videos Online

A lot of people are talking about Beck. First there was his shockingly tasteless and odiously stupid comment that Obama harbors a "deep hatred of white people" in his soul. Then he more or less single-handedly got Van Jones fired from the Obama administration. And now his claim that McCain would have been worse than Obama. Neoconservatives like Mark Levin are hopping mad.

But he may be right this time. Look, when G. W. Bush stepped down, he left American saddled with a skyrocketing war debt and the beginnings of an economic depression, but he did not leave it a smoking crater. However, that is how he left the Republican party. He did it by backing a Wilsonian liberal imperialism abroad and, in order to do so, buying political capital through the pursuit of big government liberalism at home.

As bad as this was for America, it was worse for the Republican party. Not only did it disgrace the party by associating it with disastrous policy failure, but it morally and politically compromised many of its members by tempting them to become cheerleaders for policies that, given their professed principles, they should have known perfectly well were wrong. Meanwhile, principled conservatives and libertarian-leaning Republicans were pushed to the edges of the party and in some cases ruthlessly slighted by it.

That was the result of the Bush regime, and McCain would have been four more years of these horrors. If you think that a country needs at least two functioning political parties, you probably should be glad that we avoided that. Given that McCain was running against an intrinsically weak candidate like Obama, it could well have happened, too.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

You Have No Moral Duty to Buy Health Insurance

The health care reform proposal before congress would force a new burden on the American citizen: and enforceable duty to buy health insurance. The last time I checked, the House bill would impose on anyone who neglects to purchase health insurance for himself or his family a 2.5 percent tax on modified adjusted gross income, the Senate health committee bill would impose a penalty that would range from $750 to $3,800 a year. You would be punished for the offense of not buying something.

This would be the worst invasion of individual liberty by the federal government since the draft was ended in June of 1973. If the American people have any of the spirit of '76 left in them, they will reject it.

In the above exchange, BHO repeats his usual argument for this measure:
If ... we've driven down the costs, we've done everything we can and you actually can afford health insurance, but you've just decided, you know what, I want to take my chances. And then you get hit by a bus and you and I have to pay for the emergency room care, that's . . . The—for us to say that you've got to take a responsibility to get health insurance is absolutely not a tax increase. What it's saying is, is that we're not going to have other people carrying your burdens for you anymore . . .
As to the issue of whether this coerced payment is a tax, George does a pretty good job of taking care of himself. I want to comment on the ethical argument with which BHO tries to distract him.

The argument seems to be this: If you choose not to buy insurance and are injured, the government will force other people to pay, after-the-fact, for your treatment. Therefore, the government has a right to force you to pay for it before-the-fact in the form of insurance premiums.

I find this argument baffling. It seems to come from the mind of someone who thinks it is very easy to justify coercion.

First, forcing you to pay for insurance is not the only way to force you to pay your way. We can also "force" you to pay for your treatment by the simple expedient of not paying for it after the fact, ourselves. We could return to the system we used to have, in which the hospital bills you for your treatment and you pay for it afterward in installments (or see your credit rating go down the toilet). (Remember, we are not talking about the truly needy here, but about people who choose not to pay for their medical care before it is needed.) True, this would require reforming the legal/economic system, but that is what Obamacare does. And unlike the latter, it would definitely cause the cost of medical care to go down.

Second, paying premiums is not simply paying for treatment before the fact. It is a gamble made in conditions of uncertainty and as such it may be perfectly reasonable not to do it. It is of course obvious that not buying insurance is a gamble. BHO would say that it's irresponsible to gamble with your health costs. But there is no alternative to gambling in this matter. If you don't buy insurance, you are betting your premiums would have cost more than your medical expenditures. But if you do buy insurance, you are also gambling: you are making something like the opposite bet, that your medical expenditures will be more than your premiums. (In fact, in a system that allows installment payments after the fact, and does not give public assistance to people who are not destitute, this is I think the only difference between them.) Either of these two bets can be a losing proposition. BHO thinks it is obvious there is one bet that is right for everyone. This is false.

In my own case, the health insurance gamble has been a huge loss to date. I have forgone staggering quantities of money over the last three and a half decades in order to have medical insurance, and yet have never personally had a medical condition that I could not have easily paid for myself. I have never spent a night in a hospital (except to sit up with friends or family members). The most expensive procedure I've ever undergone was surgery to insert a metal screw in a broken leg. If I had kept the cash I shoveled into HMOs over the years and paid my own doctor bills, I would be significantly more prosperous today than I am.

Third, it just seems odd to me that the source of the government's alleged right to coerce you is -- its own behavior. "I'm going to do x, and because you didn't stop me, I'm going to force you to do y." Would this sort of thinking make any sense as applied to relations between individual human beings? If you get into trouble, I will feel obligated to help you out, because I am a decent person. That makes is permissible for me to force you to not get into trouble, so I can avoid that obligation.

Sorry, I just don't get it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

"Anything Worth Doing is Worth Doing Badly"

My title is a quote from Gustave Holst (of "The Planets" fame). Some interviewer asked him what he thought of amateur orchestras. Aren't they just a sort of musical pollution? Above you see his answer. Of course he meant, "... worth doing even if badly.")

If you wouldn't do it unless you are really good at it, you must not love doing it, right? What you love is not the music, but being so damn good at playing the music.

I play second violin in an amateur orchestra (you see the back of my head in the lower left corner of this picture), and I am probably the worst player in the whole group. So I practice what I preach. Go though and do likewise!

Below is one of my favorite pieces of music played by The Portsmouth Sinfonia, an English group that took the Holstian principle into another dimension. Some Youtube wag attached it to the opening credits of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

(Hat-tip to Andrew Sullivan, who mistook this group for a high school orchestra. ... Oh, I see he corrected the mistake.)

Monday, September 21, 2009

The "Climate of Hate" Theory

Just before 11:00 am, on November 22nd of my senior year at Montgomery High School in Santa Rosa CA, I was hurrying to my civics class. The hallway was packed and I was weaving between students and open locker doors when suddenly I heard the shattering news: the President had been shot, and probably killed. Once in class, we all sat in devastated silence. Suddenly Mr. Johnson, our teacher, shouted, as if to an unseen presence in the room, "I hope you are happy, Fred Schwarz!!"

Fred Schwarz?? Schwarz, whose death at the age of 96 earlier this year went completely unnoticed, was at the time a prominent speaker and giver of seminars on the evils of Communism. Liberal commentators and politicians had been grimly warning the activities of Schwarz and other anti-Communists was dangerous as they create a "climate of hate" in America that could cause violence. Mr. Johnson's instinctive reaction was to assume that it was this right wing climate of hate that killed the President.

Strangely enough, the "climate of hate" theory persisted, even after we found out that Kennedy was murdered by a Marxist defector to the USSR who was angry about Kennedy's belligerent policy toward Cuba. Within a year, Melvin Belli, Jack Ruby's attorney, described Dallas, the site of the assassination, as "a city of hate" and quoted Dist. Judge Sarah T. Hughes saying that “a climate of hate here in Dallas...contributed to President Kennedy’s assassination.” They were referring to the fact that Dallas was a center of right-wing activity of various sorts. They were not referring to the hatred in the nasty little mind of Lee Oswald himself.

When I first saw Nancy Pelosi saying that "we" should curb "our" rhetoric, I thought for a fraction of a second she meant to include rhetoric like her earlier suggestion that the town hall protesters include overt Nazis, or Jimmy Carter's claim that the "overwhelming" preponderance of their motivation is pure racism.

Of course, that's not what she meant at all. The vague comment about the late seventies probably is meant to convey the notion that former San Fransisco Supervisor Dan White (a Democrat) was moved to murder Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk by the anti-gay rhetoric of activists like Republican State Senator John Briggs. She's invoking the climate of hate theory.

This theory, as I understand it, consists of two parts:

1) Angry rhetoric on the part of various mass movements has a powerful capacity to inspire violence, even on the part of people who are not members of the movement, more strangely yet, even on the part of ones disagree with it. It creates a generalized atmosphere in which unstable individuals just sort of explode, rather like popcorn kernels in a puddle of hot oil.

2) The rhetoric of liberal, socialist, and environmentalist movements does not have this capacity. Only that of non-leftist movements has it.

Part 2 obviously does not deserve serious comment. Part 1 is also rather odd. Why do big government liberals (as opposed to the classical, J. S. Mill type) find it so obvious? It sure isn't obvious to me. Pelosi's apparent explanation of White's evil deed is the first cousin of the explanation offered by his lawyer: that White was pushed over the edge by munching sugary snacks.

The answer is probably systemic: I think the reason big government types are so prone to this idea has to do with other aspects of their Weltanschauung. There is something about their system of ideas and feelings that requires or enables this one, an idea that seems so goofy to those of us who view their mindset from the outside.

Friday, September 18, 2009

"Entangled Giant"

The latest bits of news in a seemingly endless flood: Obama, who I considered voting for when I thought he was the peace candidate, is sending 3,000 more troops to Afghanistan and Iraq; furthermore, he now supports extending key provisions in the Patriot Act. Verily, we are in the ninth year of the Bush administration.

In a brilliant essay in the forthcoming NYRB, Gary Wills asks a question that few on the left seem to be asking:
Some were dismayed to see how quickly the Obama people grabbed at the powers, the secrecy, the unaccountability that had led Bush into such opprobrium. ... A White House official told Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, [referring to Leon Panetta's transformation] “It’s like Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
The question of course is What the Hell happened? Wills' answer, a mere 1,388 words, shifted my view of what sort of country America has become, and how it got that way. Maybe it will do so with yours as well. The core of his answer:
The momentum of accumulating powers in the executive is not easily reversed, checked, or even slowed. It was not created by the Bush administration. The whole history of America since World War II caused an inertial transfer of power toward the executive branch. The monopoly on use of nuclear weaponry, the cult of the commander in chief, the worldwide network of military bases to maintain nuclear alert and supremacy, the secret intelligence agencies, the entire national security state, the classification and clearance systems, the expansion of state secrets, the withholding of evidence and information, the permanent emergency that has melded World War II with the cold war and the cold war with the “war on terror”—all these make a vast and intricate structure that may not yield to effort at dismantling it. Sixty-eight straight years of war emergency powers (1941–2009) have made the abnormal normal, and constitutional diminishment the settled order.
When the book is finally written on the legacy of the New Deal and how it transformed America, a good half of it will have to deal with the beginnings of this vast National Security State. It has grown into a Death Star so vast it cannot be steered by any human agency on Earth -- certainly not the people, and not even the executive who nominally heads it (the "entangled giant" of Wills' title).

Obviously, the big question is: Is there any hope whatsoever of dismantling the Death Star? Wills merely vows to carry on the struggle without hope. I can think of one reason for hope, and I think it is a realistic one.

Eventually, the system will have to collapse under its own weight. The ever-escalating public debt, rising taxes, and inflation (soon to make a return appearance at a mall near you) that finance the national security state will eventually run out of resources to expropriate.

Of course, this is hardly a reason for hope by itself. If something this huge implodes, it takes plenty of other things with it. But I can imagine an intermediary position, between what we have now and complete collapse: a fiscal crisis in which it becomes obvious, even to the system's ever-increasing number of dependents, that it will collapse unless we cut costs drastically.

Then we may take a good look at the fact that our military establishment burns more wealth than those of all the rest of the world combined, and then take a look at whatever real military threats we face, and realize that the former is not a smart, focused response to the latter at all. Then congress may grow some huevos and begin a series of deep cuts in the military budget. That is probably the only way to begin to control it: just slowly starve the thing.

At that point, the only alternative to doing so will be a sort of collective suicide. It's not too much to hope that they will do the right thing, for once.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

When Can You Say "That's Racist!"?

The air is thick with charges of racism. Yesterday, Jimmy Carter said that " an overwhelming portion" of the hostility to Obama that you see nowadays is due to racism. Columnist Maureen Dowd is sure that Rep. Joe Wilson's rude outburst, now the subject of a House vote of disapproval, was racist:
The congressman, we learned, belonged to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, led a 2000 campaign to keep the Confederate flag waving above South Carolina’s state Capitol and denounced as a “smear” the true claim of a black woman that she was the daughter of Strom Thurmond, the ’48 segregationist candidate for president. Wilson clearly did not like being lectured and even rebuked by the brainy black president presiding over the majestic chamber.
The charge that an act is racist is an explanation, and as such must pass the ultimate test that all explanations must pass: it has to be the best one available. There must be no available explanation that beats it on the grounds of greater plausibility or explanatory power.

A tea party protester is waving a sign criticizing Obama’s policies of massive deficit spending. The protester is white and the protestee is black. Obviously, the reason for thinking that the sign is racist is virtually nil. There are white racists, and so there is some finite probability (very small) that any single act in which a white person is criticizing a black person is actually a racist act. In this case it is vastly more probable that the reason for the protester’s objecting to these policies is – the policies themselves.

One of the interesting features of explanations is that typically the best one, at least if it is good enough, trumps the others. It doesn’t just come out ahead of the alternative explanations, it destroys them. Once the fire inspector determines that the best explanation of a fire is arson, we don’t keep wondering, in the absence of new evidence, whether it might really be due to lightning or a careless smoker. Given that there is an immediately forthcoming and highly plausible explanation for the tea party protester’s ire, a rational person does not keep wondering if it might be due to racism instead, and a fair and honest person will not pretend to wonder.

All this applies pretty clearly to Wilson’s rude outburst. There are obvious reasons why he would think BHO was lying. The reasons why this would make him angry are equally obvious. There is no need to rummage in his supposedly sinful past to find reasons why he said what he said.

What Dowd is trying to do is to enhance the probability of another explanation by placing the act in the context of a pattern of action that indicates the moral character of the agent. I’m rather partial to character arguments myself, but I think this one is weak.

First, an effective character-based explanation requires intimate knowledge of the agent’s actions, which (as Jack Hunter points out) Dowd obviously lacks in this case. What does she know about what is in Wilson’s soul? Next to nothing, most likely. This makes it virtually impossible for this explanation to trump the immediately obvious ones. Wilson’s alleged racism is like the lightning and the careless smoker.

Second, even aside from the probability that they are true, her premises are weak on explanatory power. Even if Wilson is a racist sort of guy, that does not mean that this particular act is racist. Even racists aren’t necessarily so obsessed that everything they do that is adverse to any black person is motivated by racial animosity. Joe-the-racist might well feel that, where the fate of one seventh of the entire US economy hangs in the balance, nothing else matters, including the color of some guy’s skin.

Character-based explanations are much better for ruling things out (“I’ve known Joe for umpteen years and he doesn’t have a racist bone in his body,” etc.) than for ruling things in (“He’s a racist person, therefore this act must be racist”).

On the other hand, if you are directing a charge of racism against someone you don't really know, like the crowd that filled the capitol mall on Saturday, the allegedly racist act would have to be one for which there just isn't any other good reason. Carter is assuming that there just isn't anything, or at any rate not very much, in Obama's policies that would provoke hostility.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

"You Lie!"

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) uttered what someone called "the jeer heard 'round the sphere." This would not be worthy of note in many other countries, but here it occasioned three days of screaming and cringing. A lot of people who agree with what Wilson said have commented that he was wrong say it on that particular occasion, and right to apologize for doing so -- five times, so far -- afterward. His apologies so far have included a telephoned one to the President and a written one issued to the press. Many have insisted that this is not enough. Some (a group of House Democrats) demand that he also apologize on the floor of the House. Others (including Sen. Spector) have said he must apologize the the President in his actual, physical presence.

We absolutely must, the idea seems to be, respect the president.

Why? I am reminded of H. L. Mencken's comment on the strange insistence people have that you respect their religious opinions: “There is, in fact, nothing about religious opinions that entitles them to any more respect than other opinions get.” Surely, the four most recent American presidents have deserved no more respect than the average American, and probably a lot less. In Clinton's case this was mainly because of his swinish private life, in the other three it was because of the increasingly damaging content of their policies.

I know, you are supposed to "respect the office, not the man." But there has to be a reason to do so. In a court of law there is plenty of reason to show respect for the office of the judge. There is a very strict code of etiquette and violations are punished or otherwise prevented instantly. This is important because someone is on trial for their freedom, their reputation, and possibly even their life, and it is important that the high standards of evidence customarily applied in such a proceeding be followed as calmly and scrupulously as possible.

A parliamentary discussion is nothing like this. The standards of evidence, if you can call them that, are about as low as can be. Obama's speech was a case in point.

Besides, the American presidency is actually, like most people's religious opinions, actually ill-deserving of respect. As a number of people pointed out during the debate over the ratification of the constitution, this office is basically as sort of elected monarchy. It now serves to hoist clowns and miscreants to the position of the most powerful human being on Earth.

The person who wields this power should feel resistance, not unearned, irrational "respect."

The British have a better system in this respect. They have the same all-too-human desire to express groveling reverence for earthly authority that we do, but they get it harmlessly out of their system in their relations with the monarch. If the Queen gives a speech, they sit in silent respect. This is harmless because the Queen can't give a speech that might wreck the economy, trash the currency, or kill their children in a pointless war. The Prime Minister, of course, can. But if he gives such a speech to the House of Commons, he is apt to hear a wild commotion all about him. And he jolly well ought to.

The Democrats had the right idea when Bush was president. Too bad they forgot it:

Added Later: I just noticed this article, which points out that House rules of decorum quite explicitly forbid members to ever refer to the President as a "liar." In that case I of course am objecting to this rule. They apparently also forbid criticizing his sexual behavior. Why wasn't this rule used during the Clinton impeachment proceedings? Well, the answer is obvious, I suppose: the rule is clearly silly.

Obama Stimulus Report Card

Because I earlier objected to the Obama stimulus pork-o-rama, I thought I should follow up on it. The second quarter economic figures have come in, and we are ready to draw some conclusions. According to Mark Steyn:
In Brazil, India, China, Japan and much of Continental Europe the recession has ended. In the second quarter this year, both the French and German economies grew by 0.3 percent, while the U.S. economy shrank by 1 percent. How can that be? Unlike America, France and Germany had no government stimulus worth speaking of, the Germans declining to go the Obama route on the quaint grounds that they couldn't afford it. They did not invest in the critical signage-in-front-of-holes-in-the-road sector. And yet their recession has gone away. Of the world's biggest economies, only the U.S., Britain and Italy are still contracting. All three are big stimulators, though Gordon Brown and Silvio Berlusconi can't compete with Obama's $800 billion porkapalooza. The president has borrowed more money to spend to less effect than anybody on the planet.
As you recall, BHO went to Europe to sell his economic snake oil to them, on the theory that if staggering amounts of wasteful spending are good when the US does it, it must be even better if the whole world does it. That the Germans didn't buy any has turned out to be good for them. Sadly, things continue to get worse here.

It sounds like he gets an "F."

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Obama's Joint Session Speech

I blogged his last major health care speech, so I'm going to try it with this one as well.

I have to say though that I am not looking forward to this. I find this man (almost literally) insufferably boring as a speaker.

One of the biggest mysteries, of many, about him is: Why do people keep referring to him as a great orator? He has never said a single sentence that I can even recite from memory (excluding cliches and statements that are memorable because of their content – because, for instance, they are obviously not true).

He always sounds like he has never had an original idea in his life.

Most dismaying, right now, is the fact that he thinks that what he really needs now is another speech. Hasn’t he noticed that when he makes a major speech on the plan public approval of it decreases?

If he dramatically announces a new proposal, if he hits the reset button or drops his insistence on the public option, that will be different. What he needs is not a new speech but a new approach. We’ll see.

He walks in eleven minutes late. Hm.

... Okay, he has spoken. Here are the things he said that were new to me or at least a little bit different:

He listed a number of things health insurance companies will not be allowed to do under his plan:
  • No denial of service because of pre-existing conditions.
  • It will be against the law to drop your coverage if you get sick.
  • No caps on how much will be spent on you.
  • Insurance companies will not be able to charge you for preventive tests and measures.
He also pledged to “create a new insurance exchange.” No details about how this is supposed to work or what it it supposed to do. He clearly is not talking about allowing insurance companies to compete across state lines. He later mentions the fact that in many states the market is controlled by just five or six companies but makes no mention of laws that prohibit buying insurance out of state. He even seems to suggest it is insurance companies, with their lust for profits, that are responsible for this regrettable situation, and not the laws that virtually mandate it.

He gives an argument for forcing everyone to buy insurance: if you don’t, you are irresponsible. The rest of us end up paying for you if you get sick! [What?? This is obviously not necessarily true. I am 62 years old and have never had a medical procedure I could not have paid for if I were uninsured. My being uninsured, I know from hindsight, would have saved me money and cost no one else a penny. No one else would have had to pay when I got sick.]

Small businesses would not be required to pay for it, only big corporations. [Does this mean the 70 million Americans who are employed in small business would be forced to buy insurance and pay for it themselves?]

The audience laughed when he said “... while there are some significant details to be worked out...”

There were some loud comments from the audience when he says that the plan will not cover illegal aliens. [Later: It turns out this was Joe Wilson of South Carolina yelling "You lie!" This outburst has already been immortalized as a bumper sticker. For an excellent discussion of the truth or falsity of the President's claim, take a look at this.]

About the public option, he said that it would have no impact on those of you who already have insurance. The taxpayers would pay nothing: it would be self-sufficient. It would pay for itself with premiums. [Why make it a government plan then? His answer apparently is: the plan wouldn’t need to make a profit. This would apparently save that much money. Then why hasn’t a private not-for-profit company been started already to work this wonderful magic, I wonder. Note, by the way, that the profit margin in the health insurance industry is only 3.3%.]

To the left he says: This is only a means to an end, and we should be open to other means. [Is he throwing the public option under the bus here? Or is he only saying that he will drop it if someone finds a better way to do whatever the public option is supposed to do?]

He pledges to address any legitimate concerns that Republicans have. “My door is always open.” [Boy, is that not true!]

The bill should include a commitment to making more spending cuts if the savings we promise do not materialize.

Malpractice law reform: He said he is having the Sec’y of HHS institute pilot programs of tort reform. [No details were given about what this means.]


Wow, that was as stultifying as I thought it would be. I will never sit all the way through another speech by this guy as long as I live. I would rather sit and watch haircuts. That was 47 minutes that will never come back. And I resent every one of them.

On more substantive matters: I don't see any very clear new strategy here. He made a very slight, vague hint that the public option is negotiable. But he also made gratuitously partisan comments about his critics, dismissing concerns about rationing, and claims that the $622 billion in proposed cuts in Medicare will be something more that avoided waste and fraud, as lies. He also seemed to characterize disagreement with him as "bickering." He said he would seriously entertain proposals from Republicans, but did so in a way that seemed to say that he is already doing so -- which of course is not true. He said he would do something involving tort reform, but in the form of some mysterious experimental pilot program initiated by executive action, and not part of any legislation.

I guess he really didn't think he had to do anything dramatically different at all. Just give another speech. Which I had to listen to. Thanks a lot, pal.

Added later: For a similar but more elaborate analysis of the content of the speech, go here.

Monday, September 07, 2009

That School Talk

The most interesting thing about Obama's address to the youth of the nation tomorrow (Tuesday Sept. 8) is of course not the speech itself, which will no doubt be a soporific sermon about the importance of staying in school for the full twelve years of punishing boredom. Nor for that matter is it the rather creepy teaching materials propagated by the Dept. of Education (a government bureau that should not exist).

No, as others have pointed out, it is the strength of the public uproar the speech is provoking. Repeatedly, the administration has had to explain, reassure, modify, and generally respond to concerns that it found "silly" (their word). They are utterly mystified about the reasons for the furor.

Well, here I am to explain it.

This is a president who thinks he can switch at will, as suits his purposes, between two profoundly different roles: 1) president of all the people, and 2) head of an ideologically defined mass movement (his word) that is considerably smaller than the entire citizenry.

His attitude is Hey, I'm speaking in the president-of-all-the-people mode now! Can't you tell?

Sorry Mr. President. No can do. You don't have a light in your forehead that signals which mode you are in at the moment. The world does not work that way. You see, what's going to happen is that for some citizens you are stuck in the president mode and that's all they can see. (In some cases this is because they are members of your mass movement. In others, it is sheer blank ignorance.) For others you are stuck in the movement leader mode and that is all they can see.

And some of the latter group don't want this movement leader preaching to their kids. About anything.

Any questions?

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Support the Whole Foods Buycott

Here you see a Move On operative instructing folks on how exercise the heckler's veto against town hall participants who "ask questions" (his words) hostile to Obama's version of health care reform.

There is a profound difference between answering an argument with ideas, facts and logic, and simply preventing the speaker from being heard, either by punishing them for their statements, intimidating them into silence, or preventing them from being heard and taken seriously (for instance, by drowning them out, smearing their character, or simply ridiculing them).

There are many ethical differences between the strategies that fall on the dark side of this distinction, but one thing is true of all: while the former strategies support and enhance the dialogue, the latter shut it down. Above, you see someone trying to shut down the dialogue. Regardless of your position on medical care, this man is your enemy. You need the dialogue to continue.

The same things are true of the leftists who are boycotting Whole Foods because its CEO, left-libertarian John Mackey, wrote an op-ed piece proposing alternatives to Obamacare. The last time I checked this poll, most of the HuffPo readers who checked in were boycotting Whole Foods.

Mackey was speaking as a private citizen and expressing is opinion. In sharp contrast to the big pharmaceutical companies that have launched a million dollar media blitz in favor of Obamacare, Whole Foods is not devoting a penny of corporate assets to promoting Mackay's views.

These people are not answering what his views. They are trying to punish him for expressing them. They are trying to shut him up.

There is reason to doubt that this exercise in intolerance will hurt Whole Foods, but I think it behooves those of us who support reasoned dialogue and free speech to take part in a Whole Foods buycott. Even if you are not a big fan of over-priced arugula, spending money at Whole Foods can help foil illiberal "progressives" in their attempt to intimidate opposition and end the dialogue.

... If I find time, I'll post a recipe I made after shopping at Whole Foods last week.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

I Attend a "People's Town Hall"

That's what they are calling them. In areas, like mine, where the representatives in congress are refusing to meet with the people, some folks are hiring halls and inviting them -- and bringing in their own speakers. I attended one in Madison WI last week.

An organization called Americans for Prosperity brought John Stossel in to speak, and invited Representative Tammy Baldwin and both our senators to speak. None of them responded.

I got there almost half an hour early, and already the huge Mariott parking lot was full. I parked next door. All around me were people walking toward the conference center. On my left was a young blond woman in leopard-patterned toreador pants and high heels. On my right, a middle aged guy in a baseball cap. I have been to many political rallies and demonstrations, beginning in 1964, but they never had people who look like this.

Who are these people, I wondered? During the event, one speaker asked, "How many of you own a small business or work for a business of 50 employees or less?" About half the room raised their hands. How many of you have never been to a political event before the past year?" Over a third of the audience raised their hands.

That speaks volumes about who these people are and why there are here. A business man on the panel that spoke after Stossel said that the business community is deeply divided on Obamacare: "It's not a left versus right thing. It's a big versus small thing."

Here are my notes on Stossel's talk:
There are portions of our medical system that are still in the free market system [that we began to destroy in the sixties.] Plastic surgery is free market, and it is cheap, efficient, and constantly improving. Doctors in that market give patients their phone numbers and emails. Do you know your doctor's email? When we made a documentary about the Canadian medical system, we found a clinic that was open 24/7. But you had to be a dog or a cat to be treated there. In Canada, veterinary medicine is still private. And it works fine.

Why is Obama only talking about insurance, as if that were the solution? Insurance is the lowest form of capitalism. It's a third payer system. The insurance mentality is actually the problem.

Because it is a third payer system, you don't usually even know what your care costs. If you did try to pay for it, the exchange might go like this:

"How much does this procedure cost?"
"$400, but why do you care?"

"Wow! Does it really have to cost that much?"

"What difference does it make?"

"Well, I was thinking of paying for it now."

"Now? You mean, like, today?"

"Okay, $150."

Insurance should be catastr0phic only. There should be high deductibles. The result would be that you would be spending your own money on your medical care. Nobody spends your money as carefully as you do. The result would be a dramatic reduction of costs.

But Obama says you shouldn't have to pay anything: he thinks deductibles are just wrong. He is going in exactly the right direction.

There should be no government mandates. One reason insurance is so expensive is that governments force insurers to provide services you may not want to pay for. In Wisconsin, you can't buy medical insurance without paying for other peoples' chiropractic treatments. If you could buy insurance from other states, you could escape from doing so. But that is one more thing you are not allowed to do.
[Personal note: I had a lengthy experience with chiropractors when I was young. I have regarded them ever since as charlatans on a level with Medieval bloodletters. Forcing me to pay for their services is an injustice similar, given my values, to forcing me to pay for abortions. Of course, the justice or injustice of it is not what Stossel is taking about.]

Here is a small businessperson (a baker) from Sonoma County at a regular town hall in Northern California:

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Government Failure

As you probably know, this girl was kidnapped by a creep who claimed to be able to speak to creatures in another dimension. He kept her in a compound in his backyard in Antioch California and subjected her to eighteen years of unspeakable treatment.

During that time, the authorities failed despite many opportunities to discover the crime. Their failure was so grotesque that the Antioch police department took the extraordinary measure of issuing an apology without waiting for the usual internal review. I suspect that he was eventually caught (by the UC Berkeley campus police, of all people) because he wanted to be caught, thinking that he would be rewarded for his crimes with world fame. Which of course he was.

In 1853, Herbert Spencer published an essay, "Over-Legislation," in which he showed how incompetent, inefficient, and just plain cruel government is when it works outside its proper sphere of operations. He then examined the way it works when it stays within its proper sphere: for instance, when it tries to catch criminals.

In 1935, Albert J. Nock put Spencer's point like this:
He shows ... that the State does not even fulfill efficiently what he calls its “unquestionable duties” to society; it does not efficiently adjudge and defend the individual’s elemental rights. This being so – and with us this too is a matter of notoriously common experience – Spencer sees no reason to expect that State power will be more efficiently applied to secondary social purposes. “Had we, in short, proved its efficiency as judge and defender, instead of having found it treacherous, cruel, and anxiously to be shunned, there would be some encouragement to hope other benefits at its hands.”
If government were really efficient at catching criminals, then we might have some semblance of an excuse for giving it control of the entire medical care system. But it isn't, and we don't.

Of course, this is one extreme case, and nothing follows from it by itself. But in a rational person, cases like this don't work upon the mind by themselves. You reflect on them.

Consider why things like this happen in the first place. What would happen if, every time the Antioch police department made a mistake, they lost money? What if, in the event that they made a mistake as loathesomely horrific as this one, they would lose so many clients that they would be driven out of business? That of course is the situation of organizations in the private sector, whether they operate for profit or on a not-for-profit basis. Precisely because they can only get money from people with their individual consent, the market punishes them for every mistake they make.

That is one reason why Spencer's rule is true, and one reason why any given task should only be given to government if it must be carried out and there is simply no one else to do it.
BTW, for more on Spencer, the first libertarian individualist to be slimed by the left, go here.